Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On the Playing Fields of Hogwarts and Other Veronica Mars Thoughts

Looking over the TWoP forums, it seems that the general reaction to last week's episode of Veronica Mars, "My Mother, the Fiend", has been a negative one. I can see where some of the complaints are coming from (Veronica develops a selective sort of intelligence that, for instance, leaves her blind to the 'friend'-'fiend' connection, and there's no denying a certain soapiness to the episode's plot--abandoned babies, secret paternities, multi-generational grudges), but as a whole I think this episode actually harkens to many of the show's most important themes.

I've written before about the way Mars uses investigation as a metaphor for self-discovery and the process of growing up. I've also drawn comparisons between the show and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, which also posit that in order to fully understand themselves and achieve maturity, young people need to understand their past, specifically their parents' own childhood and maturation. "My Mother, the Fiend" draws the show and Rowling's books even closer together. We've got an emphasis on the adolescence of the parent generation, a large number of people who seem never to have left school, adolescent secrets that turn out to have significance years after graduation, and teenage grudges that not only persist into adulthood but plague the lives of the younger generation. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Neptune High is Hogwarts.

In general, I dislike this sort of approach (it's one of the most troublesome aspects of the Harry Potter books, as far as I'm concerned), which suggests that high school is the pinnacle of our existence, a defining experience that determines how the rest of our life is going to turn out. Especially given Veronica's caustic attitude towards her school, which she regards as something to be endured and overcome, it's hard to believe that this was something the Mars writers intended for us to take away from the episode, which makes me hope that they'll steer clear of multi-generational school stories in the future. But in this particular case, I think the emphasis on the past works, precisely because of what the writers leave out.

"Your mother was rather vicious"

"Really? I was thinking I was something else, less flattering."

"Thanks to your grandma, I have a 50% chance of becoming an alkie!"

"When I look at your face, all I see is your drunk slut of a mother!"

The question that hangs in the air throughout "My Mother, the Fiend", unacknowledged even by Veronica herself, is the question of generational parallels. How much of Lianne exists in Veronica, and is this genetic and environmental legacy responsible for Veronica's strengths or for her faults? It's the very first indication we get that Veronica is deeply conflicted about her nature, and that she may not like her most prominent qualities. Some variations on this theme have already been spelled out for the viewers--"Who's the mean girl now?" Veronica wonders after making a blackmail tape of Trina, and of course the season's entire theme, normal is the watchword, has to do with Veronica trying to change herself--but the darkest manifestation of it is something Veronica won't say, or even think, out loud.

This use of silence to say a thousand words is one of the show's most powerful tricks. We can also see it in use when we look at Veronica and Duncan's relationship. Like most fans, I predicted that the show's second season would open with Duncan and Veronica together, and that we'd see an implosion of that relationship soon after. I admit to some frustration on that last count, at least during the beginning of the season, until I understood that, once again, the important things about the romance between Duncan and Veronica were the ones that weren't being said. The seeds of the relationship's destruction are in the way that Veronica expends ten times as much energy on Wallace and even Logan as she ever does on Duncan, in the way Duncan never talks to Veronica about what's going on inside his head, in the way that a teacher has to point out to Veronica that Duncan isn't in class, and in Duncan's subconscious fear of the changes that Veronica has undergone. In a show that gives us preternaturally mature and adult-like teenagers, it's refreshing to see a relationship falter precisely because neither partner can see that it's failing.

So, for all its faults, I really do think that "My Mother, the Fiend" is going to turn out to be one of the most important episodes this season, and not just because of the revelation at the end (which I totally called, by the way).

Which is not to suggest that everything is sweetness and light in Mars-land. It's a common joke among Buffy fans that with all the absent, neglectful, domineering, and downright abusive fathers on that show, Joss Whedon must despise his own father. I'm beginning to wonder what we might conclude about Rob Thomas' relationship with his mother. Has it occurred to anyone that the best mother we've seen on this show left her baby on the doorstep of a man who then turned around and dumped her in a bathroom? There's Lianne Mars, of course, who even before she became an alcoholic was an adulteress who let her husband raise a child she knew might not be his, and eventually abandoned her family and stole from them. Celeste Kane, apart from being a hateful shrew to Veronica, domineered her daughter and manipulated her son. Lynn Echolls consistently abdicated her responsibility to her son, first through pills and booze and then through suicide. The first Mrs. Casablancas won't even let her sons live with her after their father flees the country to escape prosecution, and, of course, both Logan and the Casablancas boys are unlucky in their maternal substitutes, Rode Hard and Put Away Wet. Terrence Cook gets his daughter to behave herself by threatening to send her back to her mother, and then there's the litany of scary mothers Veronica babysits for in "Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner"--obsessive-compulsive Mrs. Goodman, micro-manager Mrs. Fuller, and all around lousy parent Ms. Hauser. Mothering skills is also one of the few fields in which Neptune's poor and middle-class residents don't have an automatic advantage over their wealthier neighbors--Alicia Fennel lies to her son, and Ed Doyle's wife relieves her frustrations by yelling at her tearful young son.

It really is well past time that we saw more positive female characters on this show, and although there's been an inkling of development on this front when it comes to Veronica's contemporaries--Mac has prominently featured in the two most recent episodes, and now that Meg is awake she and Veronica might be able to overcome their problems--what I really want to see are some positive female role models. It's a cliché of shows that center around strong, independent women that these women achieve great things by following in their fathers' footsteps, and sometimes in spite of their mothers, and this is something I'd like to see this show overcome. I want to see women that Veronica can look up to, confide in, and learn from--the sooner, the better.

4 comments:

Magnolia said...

I really enjoy your comments and insights into VM. But I disagree with one thing you said in particular:

In general, I dislike this sort of approach (it's one of the most troublesome aspects of the Harry Potter books, as far as I'm concerned), which suggest that high school is the pinnacle of our existence, a defining experience that determines how the rest of our life is going to turn out.

Although VM is set in high school, I don't really think it's about high school specifically, as Buffy was (using vampires and monsters as a metaphor for the horrors of H.S.).

Nevertheless, I think one of the ongoing themes of VM is the "sins of the parents" being laid at the feet of the children, and also how adolescents must learn to create their own identity as adults by separating themselves from their parents. That's an essential step on the road to adulthood, and for most people, probably occurs after high school at some point in the 16-25 years.

Because VM is set in high school, the journey that Veronica is taking on her road to adulthood obviously reflects the high school setting, but I don't think that translates to high school being the "pinnacle" of our existence. She just happens to be in H.S. right now, but I agree with RT that VM the show really isn't a "high school" show and would probably be even better with V in college or even a young adult. (Which is obvious now that most of the teenage characters are virtually parentless.)

Veronica, Logan, Weevil, Duncan and the Casablancas boys all have various issues with their parents and are learning that they have to create their own identities apart from their parents. It's an ongoing process that doesn't end with high school.

And as far as all the moms being horrible, I see that as part of the "noir" tradition. Everybody in Neptune is corrupt in some fashion (except for Keith), and that is reflected in the parents. I don't expect many "good" role models (other than Keith) to appear anytime soon, because the nature of the genre is all about the seamier side of life.

Magnolia said...

Oops, I meant Wallace, not Weevil.

Although I'm sure Weevil probably has parental issues also (considering he lives with his grandmother), but we don't know what they are (yet). Nobody on this show comes from a functioning two-parent household, clearly.

Esrom said...

In general, I dislike this sort of approach (it's one of the most troublesome aspects of the Harry Potter books, as far as I'm concerned), which suggests that high school is the pinnacle of our existence, a defining experience that determines how the rest of our life is going to turn out.

I disagree with you on this being the message behind Harry Potter. What I think the books are doing is expressing the centrality of education and using the school as a metaphor. For Harry Potter, the whole point of the plot is preperation to confront Voldemort (and with that, himself-see this article).

In addition, the most important changes seem to occur after Hogwarts: Pettigrew's betrayal, the effects of Azkaban on Black, the Gaunt family probably did not attend (and look where that got them), and others.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Magnolia:

I agree that in general, VM isn't 'a show about high school', which is why I was surprised to see an episode that focused so heavily on the parent generation's high school years, and that seemed to strongly suggest that the relationships the parents forged in high school were permanent ones. As I said, it's not common for the show and as long as the writers don't go back to that well too often, I'm OK with it.

And as far as all the moms being horrible, I see that as part of the "noir" tradition. Everybody in Neptune is corrupt in some fashion (except for Keith), and that is reflected in the parents. I don't expect many "good" role models (other than Keith) to appear anytime soon, because the nature of the genre is all about the seamier side of life.

Well, I think it would be awfully sad if Keith turns out to be the only decent adult in Veronica's life. I suppose I could settle for mildly flawed or secretive but not malevolent adults (in which case I should probably take Alicia Fennel out of the 'bad mommies' column).

Esrom:

I don't think Rowling is intentionally suggesting that high school is the pinnacle of human existence, but the emphasis that she places on adolescent experiences (and again, the way that teenage relationships, including romances and enmities, turn out to be lifelong entanglements) certainly allows and encourages that kind of interpretation. It's a side effect of the kind of story she's trying to tell, and not one that I'm particularly fond of.

In addition, the most important changes seem to occur after Hogwarts: Pettigrew's betrayal, the effects of Azkaban on Black

Clearly there have been important events that took place outside Hogwarts' walls (and as Harry grows older, the world inside the school's walls comes to seem smaller and less significant), but in Pettigrew and Black's cases, it's worth pointing out that the seeds were all planted during their school years.

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